Alex Grinch moves down to the sidelines and the Cougars defense responds well, halving the number of touchdowns they allowed the Broncos compared to what they gave up in the season opener

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Washington State’s defense gave up three offensive touchdowns in the 31-28 defeat to Boise State on Saturday night.

But aside from the 13-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that allowed Boise State to chew up 5:22 of the first quarter, the Cougs’ defense looked significantly better than it had the week before, when it got gashed for six touchdowns and 606 yards against Eastern Washington.

“I thought our defense improved,” WSU coach Mike Leach said, though he added that the defense was not exempt from his general assessment that his team lacked toughness overall. “I still think they were intimidated by Boise State, and there’s no excuse for that.”

Maybe so, but the defense at least didn’t allow themselves to stay intimidated beyond the Broncos’ first offensive series.

“We adjusted to the first drive and went from there,” said defensive end Hercules Mata’afa, who had three tackles, including two for loss, against the Broncos.

Boise State had 420 offensive yards against the Cougars, but WSU (0-2) also forced the Broncos (2-0) to punt five times, held them to a field goal on one occasion, went three-and-out three times, and only allowed the Broncos to convert on three of 10 third down conversion attempts.

The Cougars’ defense also had three key turnovers when Shalom Luani intercepted Boise State quarterback Brett Rypien twice, and Charleston White intercepted him a third time to give WSU a fighting chance down 31-28 with 53 seconds left on the clock.

Perhaps the two biggest glaring issues in WSU’s defensive performance was the absence of sacks on Rypien, and the chunk yardage they gave up on Rypien’s 47-yard touchdown pass to Thomas Sperbeck in the third quarter, and on the 36-yard deep ball Rypien tossed to Cedrick Wilson at the end of the third quarter to set up Jeremy McNichols’ 7-yard touchdown run.

But on the whole, the defense seemed to thrive with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch coaching from the sidelines instead of his usual spot in the press box.

“The communication was better, and overall it’s just a lot better having your defensive coordinator with you,” said cornerback Darrien Molton, who epitomized the resilience the defense found late in the game when he quickly rebounded from a pass interference penalty early in the third quarter to break up the Broncos’ next two pass plays and force a three-and-out.

“After the big shot (Boise State took downfield) where they gave me pass interference, I think they thought I was gonna be drowsy and not expect another big play,” Molton said. “I just tried to stay focused.”

Leach said it was Grinch’s idea to move down to the sidelines and call plays from the field. Grinch stationed defensive quality control assistant Brian Odom upstairs to act as his eyes from the press box. The pair had worked together before, when Odom was a graduate assistant and Grinch the defensive backs coach at Missouri, and they seemed to settle into a working rhythm against the Broncos.

From the sidelines, Grinch was able to check in with his young secondary more regularly.

“He was with us after every series, talking to us, talking to the whole defense, just trying to motivate us and trying to game plan for the game,” Molton said.

Grinch installed Marcellus Pippins (13 career starts) at cornerback instead of Treshon Broughton (1 career start), giving the secondary a more experienced player on the right side. The defense also welcomed Luani’s return from a one-game suspension, and Luani made the two game-changing interceptions while recording four tackles.

The turnovers forced “were huge,” WSU running back Jamal Morrow said. “They made stops when they needed to make stops and got turnovers. The offense let the team down today and it hurts.”